After then-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in May 2020, Paramount Network canceled the reality series “Cops.” The long-running show's end followed years of criticism that the show was pro-police propaganda that amplified racial stereotypes, dehumanized people suspected of crimes, and framed abuse of suspects as good policing.
Now the show is being revived by Fox Nation, Fox News Media's subscription-based streaming app — likely because the show is pro-police propaganda, amplifies racial stereotypes, dehumanizes people suspected of crimes, and frames abuse of suspects as good policing.
The migration of the show from mainstream television to a right-wing media network reflects how the political valence of law enforcement has changed in this country, and how conservatives view uncritical support of policing as crucial terrain for waging culture wars.
“Cops” is technically America’s longest-running reality series. It began airing on the Fox broadcast network in 1989 and was a ratings hit in the ‘90s, drawing enormous attention for its groundbreaking verité style. Fox scrapped “Cops” after 25 seasons, but then Spike TV, the predecessor to the Paramount Network, picked it up in 2013. Its second cancellation came after Floyd's murder altered the national conversation around race and policing, and added extra weight to persistent criticism from civil rights activists and scholars that the show was problematic.
Critics pointed out that despite the show’s raw aesthetics, it is not a realistic portrait of crime in America. Among other things “Cops” overrepresents violent crime and arrests for drugs and sex work, and implies police officers are more successful at making arrests than they are in real life. And a number of studies have shown that racial representations of the police and suspects on “Cops” have led viewers to believe both that the crime rate is higher than it is and that Black people commit crime at higher rates than they do.
According to one study from the early 2000s, for white males without college degrees (the demographic that would go on to make up former President Donald Trump’s base), watching “Cops” predicted a significantly higher level of belief in police as a force for good in society. The fact that police are not only depicted using illicit force against suspects (without having their misdeeds flagged for the viewer), but that they are also given the freedom to approve the final edit of episodes, allows law enforcement to use “Cops” for its own purposes. It should not be controversial to call it propaganda.
But while mainstream media networks decided that the show might not be the appropriate way to portray policing, Fox Nation takes the opposite view. In fact, Fox appears to be going all in on police-centric programs on the streaming service, as The Hollywood Reporter reports:
"911: On Scene" applies the Cops formula to firefighters and paramedics; "When Seconds Count" will feature dramatic rescues caught on tape; "Protect and Serve" will highlight good deeds from police officers; and "Answer The Call" will profile the children of first responders that were killed in the 9/11 attacks.
To some it might seem puzzling that a conservative news service would be so focused on shows about first responders of various kinds; theoretically they should be apolitical figures. But, in reality, this kind of programming celebrating and fetishizing police officers and firefighters is part of the right’s broader cultural focus on celebrating security and “law and order” — a dominant theme in the America right-wing imagination for decades. Such programming can also be seen as a backlash to the rise of Black Lives Matter, as well as a surge last year in the national homicide rate.
The right’s embrace of “Cops” affirms what the show’s critics always said was true: that the show is not about giving the public real insight into how crime and crime-fighting really look. Rather, it’s a PR operation for an institution often at war with the most vulnerable people in America.
CORRECTION (Sept. 14, 2021, 11:35 a.m.): A previous version of this article misstated the platform “Cops” will be broadcast on. The series will be available on FOX Nation, not FOX News.